Madama Butterfly, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Now almost 30 years old, Joachim Herz's production of Puccini's geisha tragedy remains one of the gems of the Welsh National Opera repertory, with its exquisite "fiorito asil" - the flowery refuge of Pinkerton's final aria - and its acute observation of the conflict of culture and psychology which is the real engine of this sometimes arduous melodrama.

Unlike many a pioneering venture, it has stuck to its guns, in this sensitive revival by Caroline Chaney. It still offers Puccini's unrevised original score, without, therefore, that particular aria, but with much extra business between Pinkerton and Butterfly's relations which makes him an even more repulsive exemplar of the Yankee abroad.

Herz and the conductor Julian Smith, who edited the score, argue that this version strengthens the motivation of Pinkerton and his "real" wife Kate. It certainly isolates Butterfly even more in her dignity and misery, while leaving one puzzled how she could have fallen for such a brute.

Such imponderables are beautifully reconciled by WNO's Butterfly, Amanda Roocroft. Observing how cleverly she untangles the geisha formalities and naive copied westernisms in Cio-Cio-San's behaviour, one wonders how much she may have absorbed from her recent Jenufa (for ENO in October), another abandoned mother from 1904. Musically the roles could hardly be more different, but they would tick a lot of the same boxes on a benefit claim.

Roocroft's Act II scene with Sharpless is touching. She moulds her voice immaculately to the teenage girl made wise before her time: a lightness and simplicity, warming in "Un bel dì" and with a controlled edge of brilliance in the sound. It's the most convincing portrait imaginable.

Pinkerton, by contrast, gets a raw deal from this version, losing an aria and what's left of his reputation. Paul Charles Clarke is less aggressive than some of his ancestors in the role, but his lyricism is also strained, and one sees the problem: if the enchanting "Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia" is false, then where can the warmth come from?

Julian Smith is still very much on top of this music, which is so wonderfully textured, and admirably played by the WNO; and the supporting cast is strong. This is a company altogether close to its very best.

Tonight and in rep 1-20 March, then touring (0870 040 2000; www.wno.org.uk)

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